Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Oct 26, 2005

Washington, DC – It is a profoundly sad day for civil rights advocates as we mourn the passing of two civil rights pioneers. Both Rosa Parks and Congressman Edward Roybal embodied the notion that a single courageous person can change the course of history.

Congressman Roybal began his career working to improve the health status of Hispanics, a concern and passion he sustained throughout his career. He served with distinction in World War II. Mirroring the experience of luminaries such as Dr. Hector P. Garcia who founded the American GI Forum in Texas, Roybal was deeply frustrated by what he saw when returned home from the war. Despite the heroism displayed by Mexican American soldiers, the community was still being subjected to widespread discrimination and that, for all too many, the American Dream was still out of reach.

It was this concern and commitment to a better life for his community that fueled his political career. At just 30, he ran for the Los Angeles City Council in 1947. Although he lost that campaign, the traits synonymous with his life and career emerged - his tenacity, doggedness, legendary work ethic, and extraordinary ability to organize people and communities - and propelled him, just two years later, to become the first Mexican American in the 20th Century to serve on the Los Angeles City Council.

Thirteen years later, he made history again, becoming the first Mexican American member of Congress from California since 1879. As only one of a handful of Hispanic members of Congress at the time, Roybal became a champion not only for the Hispanic community but also for the elderly, the poor, and the disabled. It is nearly impossible to overstate Congressman Roybal's record of service on behalf of Hispanics and the impact he had during his congressional career.

In 1967, he authored the first bilingual education bill. In 1968, he passed legislation to create a Cabinet-level office for Hispanic concerns. Also that year, he sponsored legislation to establish National Hispanic Heritage Week, which later became National Hispanic Heritage Month. In 1973, he introduced legislation to provide bilingual assistance to those in the court system, a major step toward improving the administration of justice for Latino defendants. He was a leading proponent of the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act enacted in 1975. He helped make sure Hispanics were counted in the Census, and in other official government statistics. He was a founder of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) in 1976 and the founder of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) in 1981. And as CHC Chair in the early 1980s, he led the fight against the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill, a fight which ultimately shaped immigration reform for a generation.

During his 30 years in Congress, he rose to a level of power equaled by few of his colleagues. He was one of the thirteen "cardinals," Appropriations Subcommittee Chairs, who essentially controlled America's purse strings. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, he worked to enact age discrimination laws and strengthen fair housing statutes. He helped save programs such as Meals on Wheels and programs serving veterans when extensive budget cuts were being made in the 1980s.

Among his most extraordinary qualities was his willingness and ability to stand up for what he believed in, even if it meant standing alone. He was unimpressed by "popularity," unafraid of criticism, unyielding to threats, and unbowed by what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles. Had he not championed these causes, often at expense to his own career, the world would be a very different, and less hospitable, place for Hispanic Americans.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family, his wife Lucille, his daughter Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, and his beloved children and grandchildren. We will miss him dearly and we will never forget.

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